WASHINGTON -- Fifty-nine years and one day after the creation of Social Security, President Clinton, using the same pen Franklin D. Roosevelt used, signed a law yesterday making the Social Security Administration an independent agency.
"For millions of Americans, that signature of 59 years ago transformed old age from a time of fear and want to a period of rest and reward," Mr. Clinton said. "It empowered many American families, as well, freeing them to put their children through college to enrich their own lives, knowing that their parents would not grow old in poverty. Nine years ago, thanks to that effort, for the first time in the history of the United States the elderly had a lower poverty rate than the rest of the population."
"What a great birthday present for the American people," Donna E. Shalala, secretary of health and human services, said at the Rose Garden ceremony.
The measure is designed to bolster public confidence in the agency. It gives the administrator, who now serves under the health secretary at the pleasure of the president, a six-year term, sets up a seven-member advisory board that will provide written recommendations to the president and Congress, and initiates controls designed to reduce fraud.
"There are 42 million Americans now receiving Social Security benefits; 135 million Americans pay into the fund," said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Democrat who was the primary mover behind the measure.
"These are in the truest sense stockholders in this great enterprise, and they are entitled to the understanding that it is independent, vigilant and sound. This legislation, I believe, assures this."
At a time of rancorous divisions in the House and Senate over crime legislation, health care reform and just about everything else, Mr. Moynihan's bill passed unanimously in both houses of Congress.
But Mr. Clinton must now choose the agency's first-ever independent administrator, a process that is, by definition, fraught with politics.
When asked about Shirley S. Chater, the current administrator, one White House aide said last week, "We like her," and that there was no problem with her being reappointed. But Ms. Chater was conspicuously given no role in the Rose Garden ceremony yesterday, although she was introduced by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
An official at the Department of Health and Human Services said that Ms. Shalala is pushing for Ms. Chater's reappointment. But after the ceremony, Ms. Chater said she has had no discussions with the White House about continuing in the job. She is reported by Capitol Hill aides to be on the outs with Mr. Moynihan.
One official said the commissioner's problem was not with Mr. Moynihan but with the White House, because Ms. Chater had turned down some White House-suggested appointees for her agency. Asked about this yesterday, Ms. Chater replied: "It's true. I wanted the very best people to serve."